Design Industry Guru
Studio Designer CEO Keith Granet took the helm of the software platform a few years ago bringing his legendary design business expertise to the company with goals to build on the storied legacy of the platform with innovations and making it more useful to subscribers than ever.
Recently, Keith took some time to answer questions about his career, share his thoughts about the business of design, describe his work with the Leaders of Design Council, and reflect on his aspirations for Studio Designer’s future. Students are generally taught how to be creative and are rarely taught how to turn creativity into a business. With your book on the business of design and as a guest lecturer, you’ve made great inroads with students at SCAD and Hartwick College, your alma mater. What is your goal for the way business is taught to interior design students in universities and colleges?
My whole purpose of writing the book was to extend my knowledge of the industry to the general public, potential clients, and especially students. Now ten schools, including SCAD, have picked up The Business of Design as a textbook . Students are generally taught how to be creative and are rarely taught how to turn creativity into a business. I hope that my book helps them learn the business side of design as they launch their careers.
For the past 18 years I’ve been a guest lecturer at UCLA's interior design program and I often hear from the students how thankful they are to understand the business perspective early on in their career.
The purpose of the classes I teach at Hartwick College is to take both books and turn them into an online course for design schools all around the country that can be licensed under their own names. The course is finishing up this month and the students have designed modules which we will then take to a developer with a goal to launch in September 2018.
You’ve worked closely with the most successful designers in the industry, what specific advice would you give a recent design graduate who has lofty ambitions to become an AD100 designer?
I would say go work for somebody whose work you admire, and learn what they’ve learned about running a design practice before you even attempt to open up your own business. Too often I think that designers just want to "hang out their shingle" and start rather than work for an established firm first. The disadvantage is they’re learning all their lessons the hard way versus working for someone who has already been tested. Plus, the projects they would get to work on with an established designer would be far more significant and aspirational than the projects they would get as a new design graduate on their own.
I also think it’s healthy to work in an environment where someone has a thriving practice so you are learning about all the aspects that make it successful versus trying it on your own. Taking it a step back into school, I recommend that students intern at a firm prior to graduating so they know the type of firm they would want to join upon graduation. Interning also makes you more of a viable candidate to employers because you have practical experience.I’ve said to a couple of clients that I can see their future better than they can. In your book The Business of Design, you share some of the business consulting you do with Granet & Associates in transforming design business. What is your favorite aspect of this work and why?
My favorite part of the work I do is in the strategic planning and big picture thinking. I’m not a minutiae guy so if you need someone to actually execute your ideas, it’s probably not me. If you need someone to help you translate what’s in your head and map it out, then I can do that. And also, I can help you with ideas that my clients alone couldn’t come up with. I’ve said to a couple of clients that I can see their future better than they can. Sometimes they are so mired down in their day-to-day activities that they can’t see what’s in their way or see opportunities that they may be missing .
The nature of your work means that you have to deal with a wide variety of personalities and temperaments with your clients. Can you offer any advice to designers about how to manage difficult personalities?
I think that difficult personalities typically are demanding but you should not tolerate if they are disrespectful or unreasonable. Understand that demanding doesn’t always mean difficult. If you can manage a demanding client, then I think you can navigate where it may seem difficult to you.
I also think that identifying when a client is disrespectful and not trustworthy is a tremendous aspect in deciding when not to work with people. Too often people do not know how to say “no” to because they do not think another project is going to come along. These are the projects you need to say no because they will drain you of everything you have. Then the good clients that could come your way don’t, because you’re focusing too much on dealing with your troubled clients.
I also think that temperaments and personalities of designers can get in the way because there are big egos there. It’s important to check your ego to not let it get in the way. I hear that a lot of people compare themselves to others and I say you can’t compare yourself to anyone else—you’ll never be them. You’ll never have their talent as your talent is your talent. You have to promote it and not worry how anyone else is running their business or marketing their design work. Your responsibility is to take care of your talent, nurture it, and know how to communicate it to potential clients.
If you people in your office with huge egos, they’re probably not the right people for you. Having difficult employees can also bring down a practice. In my second book The Business of Creativity, I have a picture of a glass of water with someone dropping poison in it. Even if it’s one tiny drop, the whole glass is poisoned. One employee who is poisonous will poison your entire practice. That’s why you should always hire first for culture and then hire for skill. It’s much harder to find people who fit in versus people who have a certain skill set and can be trained. From The Business of Design, these culture/skill charts illustrate my point.
Your responsibility is to take care of your talent, nurture it, and know how to communicate it to potential clients. As a co-founder of The Leaders of Design Council, can you share some insights and lessons you have learned leading such an organization of design professionals?
The original vision for this organization was to build a community that didn’t exist in the high-end residential architecture / landscape world. The lesson I learned from building that community is when you create something, it actually has its own life. It’s no longer just mine, it’s everybody’s. Members get projects from each other, even competitors. We’ve watched them support each other. They always say it’s lonely at the top but that changes when you have all your principals getting together and sharing ideas.
I’ve also learned that the Leaders of Design Council is not a community for people who don’t like sharing or giving back. People who are not part of it do not care about their community and only care about themselves. We actually don’t want them as members. Someone mentioned they would only join if they can speak to the group but I declined because I only want members who want to give back to the community and not necessarily be focused on themselves. You’re in great company with very successful people. It still surprises me how people check their egos at the door when it comes to this organization. I often have a new member confide, “I can’t believe how many great people are here and how open they are. The Leaders of Design Council is all about community.
Your annual LDC conference has become an influential and aspirational event over the past 14 years. Can you share how these conferences came to be and share some of your favorite experiences ?
I was initially hired by a company to create a deeper relationship to the design community and I came up with an idea to do six round tables in six cities. Each day-long round table was divided in two sessions; the first half of the day was me talking about best business practices and the second half of the day was designers talking about the product of that company and how they could improve it. From those six meetings, I realized that people are starving to learn business advice from each other and it led to the first LDC conference in 2005, which took place in Aspen.
They [LDC members] have been to so many amazing cities and we make them realize that even if they’ve been there a million times, they’ll experience a city in a completely different way because we’ll take them where the public doesn’t have access to. That’s part of our draw. We also pick cities that are on people’s bucket list and not places where people go every day. So we’ll never have one in New York, London, or Paris. We want to take people to a new place and going to Kyoto for 2018 was on so many bucket lists, but people were nervous about how to get there and how to navigate a foreign language. We make it easy for people to go to places they've always wanted to go to. We’re going to Prague in 2019.
Some of my favorite moments have included privatizing the Acropolis for a sunset experience. We visited a private island in Buenos Aires, Argentina where gardens were “heaven on earth.” We brought everyone to this island by boat. The island has 17 bridges and you have to cross the bridge of compassion to get the bridge of gratitude to open up the path of peace. It was just one of those unbelievably moving life experiences.
Many of your clients have enjoyed success for many decades and have weathered economic trends. What do you think are the essential qualities that have allowed your most successful design clients to have longevity in their careers?
We have clients who have been around since day one, about 27 years ago, and I find that the most successful ones are the ones who are constantly evolving. We do a lot of retreats with clients and the purpose of the retreat is to get off the treadmill and start moving on a forward path. I help them set a plan and see what the year ahead looks like, how to plan for that, and how make changes when things are not working out the way they want them.
My clients who focus on evolving throughout the years have been able to understand the future and deal with current issues that are coming. They have grown and thrived through every economic situation that presented itself. One client told me one day, “I figured out your magic. You give us the confidence to do our best work.” I really liked what she said as I feel that my work gives clients not only the tools but the confidence to be secure in who they are as a designer and ultimately successful in their practices. Someone also once called me their “office shrink.”
What insights from your design consulting career do you feel you bring to your role as Studio Designer's CEO?
My entire career has been on focused on the betterment of the business side of design practices, so everything I’ve done has led to my position. I’ve always said that my companies don’t have firewalls between them—they all cross pollinate each other. They all point to the same magnetic north of improving the business of design. I bring to Studio Designer my knowledge of the needs of running a practice and the tools designers need to be successful. Because of my background in working with design firms and doing licensing, I touch all stakeholders within Studio Designer—vendors, clients, and designers—people I have a tremendous amount of experience with. So that makes me much more adept at understanding the needs of the design community.
What is your vision for Studio Designer and its current and future role in the interior design world?
My vision is to make Studio Designer as accessible as possible to all designers, and to help create a bond between in a fractured industry that hasn’t embraced the internet as strongly as other industries. I’d like to improve our ability to combine all stakeholders in one place to make their work more efficient and free them up to design more by giving them the tools to manage their process better. I have plans in the works and envision acquiring a few aligned business that will ultimately engage many more relevant services. When you think about how the design process will work in the future, you can’t predict if we’ll suddenly have holograms, so we at Studio Designer must be flexible. Studio Designer will be a one stop shop to perform all services. We will always evolve to meet the needs and technological changes of our designers and users.One client told me one day, “I figured out your magic. You give us the confidence to do our best work.”